Wuhan on two wheels

An opportunity for a free trip to China came my way through my PhD at the University of Sheffield. I’ve been lucky enough to travel to Wuhan to work at HUST University. Wuhan is a city of 10 million people, and before this trip, I’d never heard of it. Blog posts on short rides in and around the city area plus a weekend tour in the nearby Yangtze 3 gorges area coming up.

Links to blog posts:

Ride 1 (01/11/2013)

Ride 2 (03/11/2013)

Ride 3 (06/11/2013)

Ride 4 (07/11/2013)

Ride 5 (12/11/2013)

Ride 1 – An early morning trip to the East Lake; 01/11/2013

An opportunity for a free trip to China came my way through my PhD at the University of Sheffield. I’ve been lucky enough to travel to Wuhan to work at HUST University. Wuhan is a city of 10 million people, and before this trip, I’d never heard of it! We received a great welcome when we arrived in the form of a giant feast in a local restaurant, which reminded me how good the food is here. Obviously, I couldn’t live without a bike for a month, so I brought one; a folding bike that I bought for £15 from Ebay, which I’ve christened “Valentino”.

The first morning that my jet lag didn’t affect me, I got up early for a ride before going to university. Wuhan is famous for its large lakes, so I thought I would go and check out the East Lake. I started on the beautiful HUST campus, a green, tree-covered, enclosed area, which is set up so that students can live, work, shop, eat, play a vast range of sports and everything else they need to do, without leaving the campus. It’s a great place to study, but I would find it a little strange to live my life without ever leaving the university campus. One thing that I thoroughly approve of on the campus is the use of bikes. It’s swarming with them. Apparently at any minute of the day, there are over 1,500 bikes moving around the campus. There are a wide range, from battered old road bikes, to modern Giant mountain bikes. Electric bikes also seem to be very popular.

I had programmed a route from Google maps, into my GPS so I knew roughly where to go. I followed the gridded campus roads to the North-East gate, weaving in and out of other cyclists, buses, cars and pedestrians. I got a few odd looks but they are more used to westerners here than in the remote areas of China that I travelled through on my round the world tour. I reached the edge of the campus, passed through the security barrier, and reached a small lake that is linked to the much larger East lake. It was amazing to find a quiet, quaint, country road in the middle of a giant supercity. There were small, brick houses, where people were growing their own food in their gardens on both sides of the smooth tarmac road. The place had a village atmosphere, with people selling fresh fruit on the side of the road. I saw a guy cutting metal rods with a circular saw while a tramp rummaged through a litter bin, looking for food. It was a world away from the giant skyscrapers I could just make out in the distance, through the mist.

My route took me past the village, then onto a lovely little track through a dense woodland. A drunk stared at me in disbelief, probably wondering if he was hallucinating. I whizzed along on my 30-ish year old Italian folding bike, weaving through the trees, amazed to have found a brilliant bike track in the middle of the metropolis.

I reached the lake shore once more and a fleet of pedallo boats and what looked like water-bikes.

The route continued around the lake on a quiet track until I reached a bridge which took me to a busy main road. A few miles along the road, I turned off and headed towards Wuhan Botanical Garden, which I hope to explore at some point during the next few weeks. I didn’t have time now though, so I continued uphill, amazed to find that my 3-speed Sturmey Archer hub was pretty capable on even fairly steep climbs. The road passed between some fair-sized, tree covered hills, one with a pagoda on top of it. Again, this didn’t feel like a city of over 10 million people.

The East Lake appeared in front of me, a vast expanse of water. I couldn’t see the other side partly due to its size but also because of the haze that had been present since I’d arrived in Wuhan a couple of days ago; was it pollution or fog, or a combination of the two? It was hard to tell.

Another fantastic bike track greeted me, which I followed around the lakeside. It was a shame to see so much litter from people who’d had picnics by the lake, but otherwise, it was beautiful and peaceful. I stopped for breakfast on a bench on my second attempt – the first was thwarted by a pile of human poo and some used toilet paper. This reminded me of the much-more-regular-than-back-home sightings of human excrement that China provided last time I was here.

I tucked into some sweet bread and marmalade that I’d brought with me. China is a very difficult place to buy nice savoury snacks that don’t require cooking. The biscuits and other snacks on sale in supermarkets are almost all, bland, too sweet, too salty or stale. The marmalade didn’t quite have the subtle bitterness of British marmalade, and glowed an odd luminous orange colour, but on the whole, tasted good and the bread tasted of brioche so the combination was about the best I could have hoped for, for a picnic breakfast.

The bike track joined the road again, which crossed the lake on an artificially raised bit of land. A group of guys on bikes passed the other way, then I saw a group of a few hundred soldiers out on a training walk. They were carrying fully packed rucksacks, pistols and assault rifles. I wondered where they were heading. It became obvious where they had come from when my planned route hit a deadend at a signpost that said “Military Restricted Zone”; a giant barracks, with high-rise buildings as accommodation for the soldiers, and possibly their families.

I found my way around the enormous military zone, through a small street lined with little shops where dogs play-fought and cats looked for scraps of food. Back on another large main road, I saw a typical Chinese contradiction; large modern apartment blocks, with shacks at their base on a sort of allotment style area where people were growing their own food. A couple of women were working the land, probably to feed their families, while business men drove to work in Mercs on the busy road behind me. The road took me back to the university campus, via a building that looked like it was being restored. It was covered in scaffolding made from bamboo.

Back at the campus, I used the GPS location of the hotel that I had saved earlier, to navigate through the maze of identical-looking tree-lined streets and arrived back where I had started, just an hour and a half earlier. An amazing ride to start the day! The experiences that a bike can bring in such a short time are amazing. It was half past eight and I was due to use a cutting machine at the university at nine so I had a quick turnaround then walked to the engineering building... hopefully the first of many adventures in Wuhan on two wheels. In three weekends time, I hope to do a short tour, so I’ll be planning that over the next couple of weeks.


Ride 2 – A lap East Lake; 03/11/2013

After the last ride to the East Lake, I was keen to do a circuit to see all of the parks on the lake shore and to get views of the city skyline. I have travelled to Wuhan with Olly, another PhD student who works in the same office as me, who was keen to come with me, so he hired a bike for the pricey sum of 30 yuan (about £3). Since the last ride, we’ve had some great experiences, mainly involving eating large amounts of (mostly) delicious food! The culinary highlight was a feast at a city centre restaurant; a plate of beef stir fried with peppers and beans (spicey), a plate of tofu stir fry and a giant fish that the Chinese called “Big Head Fish” (yes it did have a big head!). Perhaps it was a bighead carp, which I identified after a google search. Anyway, the meal was great and cost about £6 each for as much food as we could eat and two beers. A family came in and sat down on the table next to ours. The father came in with a netted bag full of crabs. A waitress came over and helped him select the best ones before taking them off to the kitchen. About 20 minutes later, the crabs returned and were quickly devoured by the family. We were offered one and shared it. The daughter showed us how to eat it, there was a part we had to remove (perhaps it makes you ill?). There was loads of yellow goo in the middle of the crab which tasted like egg yoke but had a horrible texture. The meat was nice but there wasn’t a lot of it and seemed a lot of effort for not much reward.

After the meal, we saw Wuhan at night from a viewpoint on the side of the giant Yahtzee River (3rd longest and 4th largest in the world). The skyline was spectacular, skyscrapers stretched in all directions as far as we could make out through the ever present haze.

So back to the bikes; we headed out of the campus the same way that I had cycled on the previous bike ride. There were a lot of Chinese cyclists pedalling the same way as we were, many of whom were on tandems. We found out why at a barrier, where we paid to enter the “Yujia Scenic Area”. It is a beautiful park, which we passed through. I bought a snack from a man who’d converted a bike into a mobile candyfloss machine. He happily showed us his patent for the conversion when I showed interest in his handywork. The candyfloss was pretty good too!

We headed into the forest to a place named “Monkey Hill” and were delighted to find wild monkeys jumping through the trees there. There were also caged monkeys. I’m not sure why some were caged and some were wild, perhaps they were breeding them there.

We descended to the lake shore along a great track through the trees, where people were fishing with giant rods. We exited the park,and then had lunch in the floating restaurant I passed on my last ride. It was an amazing place, with lots of walkways, linking different sections. There were hundreds of large fish in the lake beneath, which swarmed into a frenzy when one of the waitresses threw leftover food into the lake. We sat down to eat and ordered barbequed chicken that we’d seen being cooked, along with rice and a random thing on the menu that was cheap, we had no idea what we’d ordered! It turned out to be a sweet bread thing, very similar to waffles. It was another delicious meal.

After a large meal and a beer, it was difficult to get back on the bikes, but we pushed on, to the East Lake. We passed a temple on a hill with a chairlift that takes visitors up to it, then preceded to ride along a man-made spit of land across the lake, which offered beautiful views of the countryside around the east of the lake and spectacular views to the right, of the city skyline. The haze was finally lifting too, and we saw the sun for the first time in almost a week.

On the road across the lake, we saw an expensive looking beach club, with a 3-masted sailing ship moored up outside and a tramp pushing a heavily loaded tricycle next to the entrance. There were many people on good quality mountain bikes and wearing helmets, these were obviously recreational cyclists. The bike has evolved to a sport in China now, not just a mode of transport.

Near the end of the lake-road, we passed “Happy Valley” theme park, which was unfortunately closed. The roller coasters looked great.

Now on the west shore of the lake, we started our ride back towards the HUST university campus. I was surprised how bike friendly the city was, as we entered the built up areas, passing giant skyscrapers once more. We tried to pass through a park, but the exit on its south side was closed for some reason so we had to backtrack through a sculpture park, whose roads were lined with thick trees and bamboo.

We visited the Hubei provincial museum, which had some interested exhibitions of artefacts found in the tombs of various emperors. The most impressive of which contained a giant collection of bells, mounted on a spectacular wooden frame. There were fossils of homo erectus skulls that had been found nearby and vases that were over 1,000 years old.

We followed the road around the lake and passed a bride being photographed with her wedding party on a beautiful rock looking over the lake. Nearby were trees growing in the lake, with large roots that started above the water surface.

The city engulfed us once more as we passed through a lovely area, which reminded me of a seaside resort. The buildings had loads of character, there were lots of brightly coloured shops and many tarp-covered boats moored up in the lake. I captured a typical Chinese contradiction on my camera; a modern car speeding along one side of the road, and a construction worker pushing steel rods on a wooden cart along the other side.

The road back took to HUST took us past a restaurant that seemed to be selling armadillo, or something similar. There were also photos of different types of dog on the front of the restaurant so I assume that you can eat dog meat there too.

Back on the campus, we saw a statue of Chairman Mao near the entrance of the university, it really is extraordinary that he’s still worshipped here but I’ve expressed my views about that in my book and my blog about my round the world ride, so I won’t repeat them here.

We passed a giant area where the students play sport. There were basketball, volleyball and tennis courts, football pitches and a running track. We bought a drink and went to watch the football. The teams at the university use famous European team shirts as their football kits. We were watching Man Utd vs. Inter Milan. I found myself supporting Man Utd (the team I support). They went a goal down but then, their Wayne Rooney equivalent (wearing number 10) turned the game around and scored a first half hat trick.

We headed back to the hotel, returned Olly’s bike and I got my bottom bracket tightened up by a very capable bike mechanic.

The end of another great bike ride in Wuhan, this £15 folding bike is proving to be a fantastic investment so far!


Ride 3 - Up to the Peak Tower for sunrise - 06/11/2013

I'd seen the Peak Tower on the top of one of the nearby wooded hills on a run a couple of days ago so I thought I'd try to find my way up there for sunrise. I was up early again to get a weekday ride in before going to university. I headed for the nearby Ma'snshan forest park in the early morning mist, passing Yujia Lake once more. The small country road was busy with pedestrians, who looked like they were walking between the allotments on the side of the road.

At a junction, I turned right, instead of the left I took last time and soon, saw the tower that I was heading for with an orange glow behind it. I couldn't find the way up the hill and spent a while searching for a track that led up. I eventually found it behind a building site and started climbing, managing to ride up the steep track despite the limited gearing of my folding bike.

The track turned into a long staircase, so after struggling with my bike for a while, I locked it around a tree and continued on foot. After climbing a lot of steps, I reached the top and the tower for a great view over Wuhan. The sun was rising behind a forested hillside and I could make out the skyscrapers of the city throughout the constant city haze. I have looked up the air quality in Wuhan, and it is classed as very unhealthy, with over 6 times as much pollution as in the UK.

I left the tower, descending back down the track I had just climbed, unlocking my bike, and testing it's ancient brakes on the bumpy descent. It responded well, it is amazing how good the ride is, I wonder if it was a top end bike in it's time...

At the bottom, I reached a road with a great surface and cycled through some land where a vegetable of some type was being grown. The road took me to a pond covered in a large water plant at the bottom of some more large hills, it was a beautiful view. Further on, a large group of middle-aged locals were doing tai chi, blaring out music from a motorbike with a large speaker attached to the back of it. One lady was leading the group, stood at the front.

I didn't know exactly where I was going at that stage so I chose a track to cycle along and decided to find out where it led. It took me along the side of another large pool, then along a very straight, tree-lined road. Unfortunately, after a couple of miles, the track just stopped, I was confused as to why the track had been built. It doesn't lead anywhere or to anything. I had to turn round and planned to backtrack to the pool, then I saw a small track disappearing into the forest, so I followed it, hoping that it would lead to another road.

The track led into a thick woodland and eventually disappeared. I was on the side of a steep hillside, not really sure which way to go. I knew that there was a road if I headed east, having looked at the park on google maps. I pushed up the hill for about 15 minutes and came across a well trodden path, which led to a wide forest track. It felt a million miles away from the nearby skyscrapers.

The track led to a concrete road, which descended steeply down the hillside around a couple of switchbacks and into a small village, whose inhabitants were sitting down, eating their breakfast by the roadside. I reached 40 mph on Valentino! The track led to a larger road, which took me to the south gate of the forest park and a busy, bustling main road.

A couple of miles of cycling on the side of the main road took me to the bubble away from the city's hectic atmosphere; the university campus. The bike lanes on the side of these busy roads are fantastic and put the ones we have in Sheffield to shame

Off to Shanghai at the weekend, can't wait!


Ride 4 – Ride to the Yellow Crane Tower

Wuhan’s main tourist site is the giant Yellow Crane Tower pagoda so I decided to try to ride to the hill it sits on, to have a look at it. It involved cycling across the manic roads of Wuhan for about 20 miles, so I would see life in the city as I made my way to the tower. It wasn’t going to be a relaxing ride, like at the East Lake, but I hoped it would be interesting. I left the university campus via a route I knew from a previous ride, past some allotments on the side of a busy road then along a great bike track in a wood. The track bought me to the lake once more, it was a beautiful day and visibility was the best I’d seen it, perhaps air pollution levels were better than a few days ago.

I reached a junction and followed the lake shore to a viewpoint looking over a large bridge. On the side of the jetty I was standing on, was a clothesline, covered in pork that was being dried in the sun. I continued along the road, and then, was thrown into the chaos of Wuhan. The busy road I was now on did have a separate carriageway for bikes and motorbikes, but cars were using it and were parked on it, there were many motorbikes heading against the supposed traffic direction and people just walked across without checking if anything was coming; it was crazy and I had about 7 miles of this before I reached my destination.

I was following Google Maps on my phone, but it seemed that it hadn’t been updated recently, because the main road that I was following, disappeared into a tunnel that bikes weren’t allowed to enter (not that I wanted to!). There were bike tracks headed across the giant building site that was on top of the tunnel and was once the road I had planned to cycle along, so I followed them, hoping to reach the road on the other side of the tunnel. The building site was crazy! There were diggers operating right next to the path that pedestrians were using, old ladies were working, using spades to clear mud off the path, a cockerel stood on an air conditioning unit, observing the may hens that ran around beneath him and the cycling wasn’t easy – a very bumpy track for Valentino’s 20 inch wheels.

Eventually I reached the road again and was at the base of a giant building. In the west, we hear about the skyline of Shanghai (more on that later) and Hong Kong and the incredible architecture in Beijing. What we don’t hear about is the unbelievable scale of development going on all over the country. Wuhan’s skyline is a mass of cranes, high speed railway lines are being constructed everywhere, new roads are being built and impressive modern buildings are springing up all over the place. It must be a dream country to be an architect!

Finally after a couple more miles of dodging out of control mopeds and buses, I reached the park, in which the Yellow Crane Tower is located. I needed to cycle across the park, which turned out to be full of temples.

I was disappointed to find that the Yellow Crane Tower cost about £9 to go to see, which in my opinion was a bit pricey, particularly compared to the cost of a meal at the university (about 30p!). I decided not to go inside, but had a look at the tower from the outside. It was very impressive, although it is not the original, this one was built in the 80s. Apparently it is one of the "4 great towers of China" and is named such, because a chap called Wang Zi'an rode off on a yellow crane from the site where it is built. It features in many Chinese poems too, for example:

My old friend bids a westerly farewell to Yellow Crane Tower, In the misty blossoms of April as he goes down to Yangzhou. His lone sail is a distant shadow disappearing in the azure void, All I see is a long river flowing to the edge of heaven.

Anyway, it was an impressive sight, although difficult to get a photo of because the view was obscured by trees. From my vantage point by the entrance to the tower, I could see the first bridge ever built over the Yangtze River.

The way back was fairly straightforward to navigate, I was still having to dodge bikes and mopeds, but the road was a bit less chaotic and the bike lanes a bit less crowded. I saw a dog which had had its ears and tail died pink and another one in the basket of a bike. I passed a specialist “fixie” bike shop; I’ve been surprised to see so many. These bikes are single speed, with no freewheel and sometimes no brakes; the braking is done by pushing backward on the pedals. The road was constantly crossed by overpasses and every block was full of large buildings.

I knew I was close to the campus when I reached “Optiks Valley”, a massive shopping centre. It’s an odd place with “German, Spanish and Italian themed streets”. They are themed in name only however, as I never saw anything remotely European when I was walking round.

Finally, completely emotionally drained due to the fact that I’d had to concentrate so hard on not being hit by any other road user, I arrived back on the campus and got an early night, ready for the trip to Shanghai that Olly and I had planned the next day. Here are some photos of the highlights of Shanghai:

And a time-lapsed group of photos at dusk (1 minute intervals) from the top of the Jinmao Tower (13th tallest building in the world)

Ride 5 - Night ride in the north of Ma'shan forest park


Despite it many obvious attractions, China is not a place where one can relax and after a couple of weeks of battling against the crowds, the bustle, the constant rush and the most difficult thing, the largest language barrier I have ever encountered, most visitors need a break. I'm not sure why the language barrier is so vast. Compared to the former Soviet countries, for example, where the alphabet and language is also entirely different from our own, communicating with local people is so much more difficult. Sign language doesn't work the same in China, you can't explain anything by miming, and they even count to ten on one hand rather than two, using a different hand sign for the numbers 6-10, so it's very confusing until you learn how! Where am I going with this you ask?

You probably guessed, my method of escaping from the stress is by going cycling. It is amazing how relaxing going on a bike ride is, even at home in chilled out Sheffield. The escape here is ten times as valuable and, my £15 folding bike has been the best investment I've made. On this particular day, I decided to head out into the north of the forest park, that I explored the South of, on ride 3 of this blog. It was a beautiful evening when I left campus and by the time I reached the park, the gates were not manned so it was free to enter. I rode along the road around the lake shore, which turned into an off-road track, leading to a group of houses. The houses had allotments, many of which were being worked as I passed by in the early evening gloom.

I hit a deadend, so backtracked to the main road, which I climbed, then turned left at monkey hill, where I had cycled with Olly a week or so again. I sped past the monkeys this time though and went north, up and over another hill. I was very pleased that I managed to climb an off-road trail to the top, but it was impossible to ride Valantino down the staircase on the other side. I pushed down to another road in an area of the park I hadn't been before. I got some speed up on the road that skirted the east of the park, to see how fast I could comfortably ride my folding bike. 20 mph was fairly easy to achieve in short bursts, so not much slower than a standard bike. This bodes well for the tour of the Yangtze gorges I plan to do in two weekends time. I'm getting excited about getting back on the road for a proper adventure again and I'm very pleased that the bike I've brought is working well.

I reached the East gate of the park, so backtracked to a turning I'd seen which said "staff only". There were loads of bikes and cars going through so I assumed that this was a sign that the locals ignored, and promptly did so myself. It turned out to be a great decision. The road cut through a beautiful woodland then into another village. This felt like remote China, like the small villages I passed through so many times on my trip two years ago. It brought back memories of days on the road. Not pangs, but memories of a great adventure that is in the past. It is so great to have them as memories.

A fair-sized climb took me through a maze of roads and I cycled randomly for a while, taking the turn that I liked the look of. I was in the countryside, away from the city and loving the break from the madness! After a while, I decided it was time to head back, or rather my rumbling stomach did. I used my GPS to direct me to a park gate on the west side of the park. About 6 km of riding along a road through forested hillsides brought me back to the campus entrance that I normally use. I decided to skirt around the side of the campus, which involved a climb over a small pass around the back of Mo Mountain. Somewhere I am yet to explore and will do so soon. The ride over the pass wasn't pretty but it got the lungs working and maybe helped to clear some of the pollution coating the inside of them (or possibly added to it...). There was a large lit up restaurant with a truly awful picture of Buddha. At a crossroads, I bumped into a group of mountain bikers, with full face helmets. Some of them had seriously good DH bikes. There must be trails on Mo Mountain, I will have to explore... Back on the campus, via the north entrance, I cycled the now well known route back to the hotel, in a completely different mood from when I left... much more relaxed!

The point in this blog entry is to show how great a bike is, and that you don't need to spend huge amounts of money on one to have a good time. A £15, 30 year old folding bike is good enough for great rides, and as I hope to prove in two weekends time, a pretty serious bike tour. So borrowing MBR magazine's catchphrase... just get out and ride!